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Messenger: Battle against mass incarceration is making a dent in Missouri's prison population

Messenger: Battle against mass incarceration is making a dent in Missouri's prison population

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The letter from Dent County Jail contained good news.

If you get letters from people in custody — and I get a fair amount — good news is a rarity. People locked up generally have plenty of good reason to complain.

Not this time.

“You wouldn’t believe the changes that have taken place around here,” the woman wrote.

She and I first corresponded last year, shortly after I began a series of columns on men and women in rural Missouri jails, held because they couldn’t afford to pay their jail “board bills” for previous misdemeanor sentences.

She told me about the conditions in the jail, about the high cash bails that kept people there, about how they would plead guilty to whatever they were charged with just to get out.

She introduced me to people who had been caught up in this debtors prison scheme.

She was self-aware enough to know her case wouldn’t be sympathetic, so she was content to point me in the right direction and help those around her.

There was a time, about a year or so ago, when the number of women in the Dent County Jail surpassed the men.

“Perhaps women are less likely to get the money for bond, or maybe they are just easier to manipulate,” she speculated.

That’s no longer the case.

Last November, the judge who was most responsible for jailing people in Dent County over failure to pay court costs lost her election. The judge’s friend who ran the private probation company lost her job. When the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal to jail people over failure to pay their jail board bills, the presiding judge in the circuit, Kelly Parker, started releasing people from their illegal debts.

“What you probably haven’t heard is how the atmosphere has changed,” my friend wrote me last week. “The jail is emptying out. People that do come in are able to bond out quickly. None of the girls here are being held for financial reasons. This place isn’t the terrifying dungeon it used to feel like. The new judges are actually listening to people’s needs instead of sending them straight to prison.”

This is progress, and it’s not limited to one rural Missouri county.

Last year, Missouri led the nation in reducing its rate of mass incarceration. That positive detail is contained in a new report released by the Vera Institute of Justice on Wednesday, showing that criminal justice reforms nationally are having a positive effect.

Between 2017 and 2018, the Vera report determined, the rate of incarceration in Missouri dropped by 7.1 percent, a more precipitous decline by rate than any other state in the country. The federal decline was 1.3 percent. The report looks strictly at state prison numbers, and the authors point to a few likely reasons for the reduction in mass incarceration in Missouri, says Jacob Kang-Brown, a senior research associate at Vera.

First, in early 2017, the state’s first major overhaul of the criminal code took effect. It dropped sentences on many minor crimes, such as marijuana possession; streamlined many repetitive charges; added parole in cases that didn’t previously have it; and added a fifth level of felony for crimes that don’t deserve harsh sentences.

Also, in St. Louis, voters elected reform-minded prosecutors, Kimberly M. Gardner in the city and Wesley Bell in the county, and both promised to reform the bail system and stop seeking jail time for some minor offenses, such as child support prosecutions in the county.

While Vera’s study doesn’t address local jail populations, both the city and county have dropped their daily jail counts significantly in the past two years, and often, that is a precursor to a reduced state jail population.

Last year, Missouri started a “justice reinvestment” project working with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Pew Charitable Trusts which seeks to reduce recidivism by improving behavioral health treatment options and probation supervision.

All of those efforts are contributing to the decline in Missouri prison population. So will Gov. Mike Parson’s effort to close a state prison, and the effect on the Missouri Supreme Court decision on the jail board bills, which should reduce incentives for counties to try to fill the pipeline from county jail to state prison.

None of that will help my pen pal. She’s likely headed to prison after her stay in Dent County.

Meanwhile, Missouri lawmakers are debating several measures that could continue criminal justice reform measures in the state, reducing the state’s prison population, and sending people who have served their time back to their communities, where they can rebuild lives, contribute to the economy and get a fresh start.

“Criminal justice reform is working,” Kang-Brown says.

In some respects, Missouri is leading the way.

Jailed for being poor is Missouri epidemic: A series of columns from Tony Messenger

Tony Messenger has written about Missouri cases where people were charged for their time in jail or on probation, then owe more money than their fines or court costs. 

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